The French Connection: Both Sides Now

Jean Dujardin

Jean Dujardin

Director/co-writer Cédric Jimenez’s “The Connection,” based on the life/work of a relentless 70s Marseilles magistrate, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), although less compelling than William Friedkin‘s (state)side of the notorious heroin smuggling story is a riveting thriller, and ultimately a tragedy.  The film is buoyed up both by Dujardin’s deep understanding of the judge’s complexities and the Academy Award winning actor’s buckets of charisma. (I could watch this guy read the proverbial phone book).  The cinematography, using the hypnotic light of the  Côte d’Azur, and period-perfect sets, music, wardrobe and cars (lots of Citroëns) create an engrossing atmosphere.

As a magistrate working with juveniles, Michel is frustrated by his limits to repair young lives derailed by addiction. Promoted to major case, aligned with a task force of elite cops, Michel is determined to shut down “La French,” the colossal and wildly profitable heroin business masterminded by the amoral, explosive Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), who, paradoxically, is a devoted family man.

Highly principled (and oddly fearless for himself and his beloved wife and daughters), Michel is also obsessed with winning (a prior gambling addiction, poker, is intimated) and commands raids, arrests and interrogations.  But as an outsider (he’s from Metz), to succeed in destroying Zampa and his operation, he must truly understand Marseilles. Jimenez says, the “narrative process allows the spectator to discover, along with the judge, the way the town functioned, to discover its unique codes and to pierce its secrets.” And Michel finds that corruption–the irresistible lure of money–has infected the group of cops he relies on and is woven heart deep into the fabric of Marseille’s civic life.

“The Connection” opens today at the Sunshine Cinema, and in Los Angeles, followed by a national rollout.

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The Seventh Extinction

Priscilla Derven and Steve MacDonald, High Falls, NY

Priscilla Derven and Steve MacDonald, High Falls, NY

Like a grand opera cycle, Priscilla Derven‘s current and previous shows at John Davis Gallery create a world of event, drama, tragedy, conflict, beauty.

The paintings in her new exhibit, “DISLAND: Paintings 2013-2015″ are gorgeous yet often disquieting abstractions, suggesting landscapes catastrophically disturbed and populations obliterated by the violence of water.

Derven’s bathers (figures rendered using little more than color and light), who enjoyed the seaside and the ocean in her earlier series, “A Day at the Beach: New Paintings 2006-2007″ and “Paintings” (2008), have disappeared; so too the gangsters and warriors of “SOA e SONA” (2010). Human and environmental violence (likely also human-created) have brought the apocalypse.

Derven discussing “DISLAND” says, “The people are all gone now except where they wash ashore like branches or other spindly, broken detritus…I fly overhead in my imaginary plane soaring in, too close to the jagged cliffs, as I come in for the views.”

And what spectacular views they are. Working with oil on canvas or linen, Derven uses “no visual reference except what I can see in the paint I apply to canvas.” Her palette and forms, ranging from ominous (toxic plumes?) to pastoral (blooming fields?), reveal the next stage in the earth’s life, a “world without us,” and perhaps, in one of the last paintings in the exhibit (if you start upstairs, and then downstairs, walk counterclockwise), “DISLAND 10,” a return to a peaceful (albeit, empty) beach.

“DISLAND: Paintings 2013-2015″ at John Davis Gallery, 3621/2 Warren Street, Hudson, NY, continues through May 24.

Priscilla Derven, left to right, "DISLAND 15" (2013), "DISLAND 8" (2013), "DISLAND 23" (2014), "DISLAND 5" (2013)

Priscilla Derven, left to right, “DISLAND 15″ (2013), “DISLAND 8″ (2013), “DISLAND 23″ (2014), “DISLAND 5″ (2013)

Priscilla Derven, "DISLAND 10" (2013)

Priscilla Derven, “DISLAND 10″ (2013)

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Leaves Return (Stillwater Diary)

Witch-Hazel, Stone Ridge, 5/3/15

Witch-Hazel, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/3/15

Finally, in this slow spring, the dormant sticks are stirring. Chartreuse, green gold, the small leaves seem as if they’re lit from within.

Kwazan Cherry Tree, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/3/15

Kwazan Cherry Tree, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/3/15

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Man Eaters

Justina Walford and John Stuart Wildman, NYC, 4/30/15

Justina Walford and John Stuart Wildman, NYC, 4/30/15

Director/co-writer John Stuart Wildman’s highly entertaining debut feature, “The Ladies of the House,” a “feminist grindhouse thriller,”  is so riotously over the top that “the top” recedes like earth from the window of a speeding spaceship.

Jacob (Gabriel Horn), protective of his large but simple brother Kai (RJ Hanson), teams up with their friend Derek (Samrat Chakrabarti) to celebrate Kai’s birthday at a seedy strip club. But with Kai obviously uncomfortable, the three make an early exit. Outside Derek spots a lovely young dancer, Ginger (Michelle “Belladonna” Sinclair), leaving work and aggressively suggests they follow her, overcoming Jacob’s decency, resistance and sarcasm (“Are strippers ok with stalking?”).

Approaching Ginger (stripper name, Wasabi) at her front door, Derek proposes that they all go in and party, with the friends providing tequila and pot. And this being a genre film, she puts aside her misgivings and invites them in. The friends are unaware that they’ve entered the home of a quartet of fine young cannibals. Things go from disaster to dinner.

Ginger is shot by Derek, a mistake of massively misguided self-defense. Her roommates, also dancers at the club, Lin, the owner of the house (Farah White), her lover, Getty (Melodie Sisk), sporting the smokiest of smoky eyes, and beautiful, childlike Crystal (Brina Palencia) return from work, take action to avenge their friend, secure their home and serve the evening meal.

Co-written by Justina Walford, the story unfolds with the requisite shockers and gross-outs, but also with plenty of pleasures in the details: the homey, color-drenched sets; the clever costumes (the women, surprisingly all brunettes, choose pin-up attire for ’round-the-house wear); the inventive cinematography by Beau Ethridge (using a Canon 5D), including you-are-there, jangly shots of Kai being tasered; effectively creepy sound design. And “Ladies of the House” is often (intentionally) funny. Lin to Jacob splayed out, tied to Crystal’s bed, “What you eat and how you eat it says a lot about you. What’s in a burger?What’s in a hot dog, really?”

Wildman and Walford cite classics (Takashi Miike’s “Audition,” Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy,” Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) as influences but like the best of genre films, their “Ladies” is sui generis.

“The Ladies of the House” is now available nationwide on demand and on iTunes:

Justina Walford and John Stuart Wildman, NYC, 4/30/15

Justina Walford and John Stuart Wildman, NYC, 4/30/15

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Ugly Plant, Great to See You (Stillwater Diary)

Forsythia, Stone Ridge, NY, 4/25/15

Forsythia, Stone Ridge, NY, 4/25/15

If forsythia weren’t a first responder to the desperate call for spring, I’d yank the the silly, spindly shrub out of the ground.   (Pretty much the only thing I like that comes in yellow is a Labrador Retriever–love you, Ryder.)

But, ah, andromeda, evergreen, shapely and crowned with flowers of delicate white bells, lily of the valley held aloft.

Andromeda, Stone Ride, 4/25/15

Andromeda, Stone Ridge, NY, 4/25/15

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Winter Kills But False (Hellebores) Prove True (Stillwater Diary)

White Pine, Rhododendron, 4/12/15, Stone Ridge, NY

Left to right: white pine and rhododendron, 4/12/15, Stone Ridge, NY

While the ravages of this cruel winter on some of the evergreens–white pines and rhododendron–are preferable to damage done by borers, fungi or the wooly adelgid, in that they timed out with the arrival of spring (neither Susan nor the forester had heard of current, non-weather related problems with either plant), it’s dispiriting nonetheless.

The combination of many of these conditions–too cold, too dry, too wet, too much sun bouncing off snow, as if it were a giant suntanning reflector, temperatures fluctuating too much in a short period of time–discolored the needles of the white pines, and heavy branches, entire saplings and sections of crowns seemed to be rusting.

Too many rhododendron leaves are stained or spotted copper, victims of drying winds (despite having been appropriately sprayed). And some leaves that are green have remained curled into themselves as if to keep warm. I know they’ll brown and fall.

But last Friday, in the monochromatic beauty of the Groverkill and its banks in early spring, I noticed a shock of bright green, the return of the faithful false hellebores (which Sally identified for me eight years ago). By Sunday, pleated leaves were flourishing in the mud, leaves and water. I’m hoping for the skinny spikes carrying small lime-colored flowers, which capriciously appear in random years. I’ve been unable to determine which are the favorable conditions.

False hellebores, 4/19/15, Stone Ridge, NY

False hellebores, 4/19/15, Stone Ridge, NY

I was thinking of a song and a movie when I wrote the headline for this post: director William Richert’s “Winter Kills,” with Jeff Bridges and John Huston; and “Canadee-I-O” (“For if the sailors prove false to you, Well, the captain, he might prove true”), sung by Nic Jones (on his 1980 album, “Penguin Eggs”), included in a mix Mike made for me, “Songs That Influenced Bob Dylan.” Dylan’s recorded it in 1992 on “Good as I Been to You.”

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Reality/Fiction, Fiction/Reality

Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda

One of the sidebars of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual documentary festival, the sprawling Art of the Real, showcases non-fiction and fiction films made throughout the long, remarkable career of the great French director Agnès Varda.

In a 2009 interview, Varda said, “I need images, I need representation which deals in other means than reality. We have to use reality but get out of it. That’s what I try to do all the time.” This approach to storytelling is reflected in her rich and innovative narrative features as well as her various kinds of nonfiction work–diary films, essay films, experimental documentaries and anthropological sketches.

“The Actualities of Agnès Varda” opens with her first film, a marital drama, “La Pointe Courte” (1955), set in the French coastal fishing village of Sète (where Varda partially grew up).  Her celebrated feature “Vagabond” (1985) stars Sandrine Bonnaire (a career-defining performance) as Mona, a young professional who abandons her comfortable urban life for a solitary existence on the road. Regardless of gender, social/economic class and ethnicity, the people with whom Mona interacts in her travels, played by mostly non-actors, are all baffled by her choices and motivation.

Ten documentaries are also part of the program. “Black Panthers” (1968), a casual portrait of the revolutionaries, focuses on a “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, CA. Varda shot 2,500 photos in Cuba in December 1962 and edited 1,500 for her exuberant photo montage, “Salut les Cubains” (1963).  With a two-year old, son Mathieu Demy, Varda was “a bit stuck at the house,” and “Daguerreotypes,” (1976) is both a group portrait of her neighbors on Rue Daguerre and a trenchant comment on how domestic/familial responsibilities circumscribe women’s creative work.  “The Gleaners and I,” (2000) Varda’s glorious and perhaps best-known documentary, focuses on what is gathered, what is left behind–in fields, on the shoreline, in dumpsters, from garbage, and with images.

“The Actualities of Agnès Varda,” part of Art of the Real, runs from Friday, April 17 through Friday, April 24, will be shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater. A Q&A with Agnès Varda will follow screenings of “La Pointe Courte,” “Vagabond,” and a program of four of her short documentaries. Varda will also introduce “Daguerreotypes.”

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